NEW YORK—Turning 18 is a significant milestone, a rite of passage where one moves from childhood to adulthood. But for those in the foster care system, turning 18 signifies a different milestone—you are now on your own, kid.
“People don’t realize that at 18, when their own kids are going to prom or preparing for college, these kids are going to homelessness,” Lauri Burns, founder of The Teen Project, said in Astoria on Tuesday.
Burns was born on Long Island and learned firsthand what it was like to grow up in the foster care system after experiencing the horrors of an abusive family. After exiting the system at age 18, and with no place to go, she hit the streets, living a self-destructive lifestyle.
At 23, after surviving a brutal beating by two gunmen, Burns realized it was time for a change. She checked herself into rehab, essentially closing the door on one horrific chapter in her life to begin a new chapter filled with hope—not only for herself, but for others also.
Burns authored a book in 2010 called “Punished for a Purpose,” published by WingSpan Press, chronicling the chilling details of the abuse and neglect she has overcome. She came to realize that her childhood, while horrific, was necessary to enable her to meet the people she feels destined to help.
Speaking with Burns today, you would never guess her troubled past. The sense of hopelessness and anguish that once filled her mind are now gone. A bright smile fills her face, accompanied by a positive outlook on life, and a strong faith.
Burns has been taking in at-risk youth for the past 20 years in California, including serving as a foster mother for 13 years.
She created The Teen Project in 2007 to give youth an alternative to life on the streets. “I started it because I couldn’t believe that nobody else was taking care of these kids who are leaving at 18,” Burns said.
Many of the teens she sees and talks to are exiting the foster care system ill-equipped to face adulthood, having bounced from group home to foster home multiple times. Burns says many don’t know how to perform basic adult tasks, such as opening a checking account, obtaining a driver’s license, or getting and maintaining a cellphone.
“A lot of times they don’t even know the life lessons that our own parents would teach us, because they never had that kind of support,” Burns said.
A Saving Text
While Burns and The Teen Project are based out of California, she receives calls from all over the country from teens looking for help. “It gets crazy on my side on the ground, talking to the kids, meeting them. It’s very emotional for me to not be able to help all of them,” Burns said.
Logistically, she cannot take all the people she speaks with into her house in California, so she has set up a way to extend her reach far beyond her doorstep. The IT director at Northrop Grumman, a self-described “computer geek,” got together with a developer and created a way for people to find the nearest shelters via text.
Those looking for help can text the word SHELTER and their five-digit ZIP code to 99000. Within 40 seconds, they will receive a text listing nearby shelters from a nationwide database of 17,000 shelters.
In New York City, one of those shelters is Covenant House, which has been taking in homeless teens via their 24-hour crisis shelter since 1972.
“The majority of the kids are living at Covenant House because they have no place else,” said Tom Manning, a staff member who has been with Covenant House for 25 years. “A lot of the kids we serve are 18 to 21, those that society thinks are grownups—yet they have had no support their whole lives and they are expected to be on their own.”
The immediate needs of the young people are addressed first, such as a warm meal, a bed to sleep in, or even just a shower. Then an individual plan is drawn up for long-term care to help with education, job training, and learning adult responsibilities.When asked about the most rewarding part of working at Covenant House, Manning replied, “It is seeing them come back happy and productive, with families of their own. There is nothing better than that, because they come to us so broken for the most part.”
Burns hopes that through this texting program or even by reading her book, more people can get the help they need. “Since I have started on The Teen Project, to abandon it now would mean all those kids going back to homelessness. It is a lot of responsibility to carry,” Burns said.
“These kids are amazing to be around. I don’t understand why people don’t want to be. They are so grateful.”
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